FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo, an electronic signboard welcomes people to the Howard University campus in Washington. With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
WASHINGTON (AP) — With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice.
But then, Howard University has never exactly been low-profile.
For more than a century, the predominantly Black institution in the nation’s capital has educated generations of Black political and cultural leaders. Among them: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, civil rights icon Stokely Carmichael, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and Vice President Kamala Harris.
But even by those standards, the school has been on a hot streak lately, with new funding streams, fresh cultural relevancy and high-profile faculty additions. This past week’s hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates serves as confirmation that Howard intends to dive neck-deep into America’s divisive racial debate.
FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Hannah-Jones opted against teaching at the University of North Carolina after a protracted tenure fight centered on conservative objections to her work and instead chose Howard University, where she will hold the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Hannah-Jones opted against teaching at the University of North Carolina after a protracted tenure fight centered on conservative objections to her work and instead chose Howard, where she will hold the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. She rose to fame with The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which reframed U.S. history through a racial equity lens and helped mainstream the idea of critical race theory — a topic that has become a core Republican talking point.
FILE – In this Nov. 21, 2019 file photo, author Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks during the Celebration of the Life of Toni Morrison at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. This past week’s hiring of Nikole Hannah-Jones and Coates serves as confirmation that Howard University intends to dive neck-deep into America’s divisive racial debate. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
Coates has written critically on U.S. race relations for years and is closely associated with the argument for reparations for slavery.
Howard’s president, Wayne Frederick, doesn’t characterize either hiring as overtly political, but merely a natural extension of the university’s motivating ethos.
“Howard University has been on that caravan for social justice for about 154 years,” Frederick said in an interview. “Howard has a rich legacy. … My responsibility is to contemporize that and to bring faculty to the university who are in the contemporary space, speaking to present-day issues.”
Columbia University journalism professor Jelani Cobb, a Howard alumnus, described the moves as a pivotal jump in the university’s national stature. Howard, he said, had gone from traditionally “punching above its weight class” to “moving up a whole division.”
All this is just a few years removed from a period of internal tension and financial scandal. In 2018, six employees were fired amid revelations of more than $350,000 in misappropriated grant funding, and students staged a nine-day occupation of the administration building over demands that included better housing and an end to tuition increases.
But even amid those problems, Howard has seen a boost in applications and enrollment as more Black students choose to attend historically Black colleges and universities. “I do think that we’re seeing a renaissance, and that that’s driven by the students more than the parents,” said Noliwe Rooks, chair of Africana studies at Brown University. Rooks attended Spelman, an all-female HBCU in Atlanta.
Howard University Student Association President Kylie Burke, left, introduces Vice President Kamala Harris to the podium to speaks about voting rights at Howard University in Washington, Thursday, July 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Vice President Harris returned to Howard days after the hirings were announced. Speaking at a news conference on a voters’ rights initiative sponsored by the Democratic National Committee, she received a rapturous welcome from a packed house that supplied church-style “amens” and burst into applause when she called Howard “a very important part of why I stand before you at this moment as vice president of the United States of America.”
For current students, the school’s rising profile is a confirmation of their choice to attend “The Mecca” — one of Howard’s many nicknames.
“There’s something truly intangible about this university,” said Kylie Burke, a political science major and president of the Howard Student Association, who introduced Harris at the event. Like Harris, Burke came from Northern California to attend Howard, and she served as a legislative fellow in Harris’ office when she was a senator. “Howard teaches you a thing about grit, it teaches you to remain focused, it teaches you to be persistent,” Burke said.
The hirings capped a dizzying stretch for Howard.
FILE – In this July 6, 2021, file photo with the Founders Library in the background, people walk along the Howard University campus in Washington. With the surprise twin hiring of two of the country’s most prominent writers on race, Howard University is positioning itself as one of the primary centers of Black academic thought just as America struggles through a painful crossroads over historic racial injustice. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
Within the past year, Harris was elected vice president; MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, donated $40 million; and actor Phylicia Rashad returned to her alma mater as dean of the newly independent College of Fine Arts. That college will be named after the late Chadwick Boseman, a Howard graduate whose role as African superhero Black Panther made him an instant icon and shined a fresh cultural spotlight on the school.
Boseman expressed his love for the university in a 2018 commencement speech, calling it “a magical place.” He cited one of the school’s more modern nicknames, “Wakanda University,” a reference to the movie’s technologically advanced African utopia.
Although there’s rising interest across the HBCU network, Cobb said Howard will always attract a particular demographic of Black student such as Harris with an interest in politics and governance. The school has produced members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries and mayors. One of Cobb’s undergraduate classmates was Ras Baraka, now mayor of Newark, New Jersey.
Rooks said Hannah-Jones’ move could have ripple effects throughout academia.
Traditionally, Rooks said, Black academics were drawn to predominantly white universities because that’s where the funding and the prestige lay. But Hannah-Jones didn’t just bring her reputation; she also brought nearly $20 million in funding.
“It’s a whole other thing when you become the benefactor,” Rooks said. “We all learn how to behave, how to act, in the presence of power. If you’re the power and it’s your money, you’ve taken a whole racial dynamic off the table.”
Still, Howard’s rising prominence does bring the risk that it will overshadow smaller HBCUs. Rooks said Howard and a handful of other big names such as Morehouse, Spelman and Hampton dominate the headlines and the funding. She said, half-jokingly, that most Black American students couldn’t name more than 12 of the 107 HBCUs in the country.
One possible example of the phenomenon: In 2019, NBA star Steph Curry donated an undisclosed amount to allow Howard to launch Division I men’s and women’s golf teams, and fund them for six years. Curry was raised in North Carolina, home to 10 active HBCUs, and holds no particular connection to Howard.
The HBCU world still boils down to “five or six schools that really attract a lot of attention,” Rooks said, and dozens of others that are “desperate for funding.”
Howard’s recent fortune, she said, is “not necessarily going to raise all the boats.”
Associated Press writer Hilary Powell contributed to this report.
Follow Khalil on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ashrafkhalil
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me takes its title from a Richard Wright poem, but its more direct inspiration is James Baldwin’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. Coates’ book is in the form of a message to his son, Samori—but his prose throughout is also inspired by Baldwin’s rhythms, and sometimes even by Baldwin’s turns of phrase. “…the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and distinct sadness well up in me. The answer to the question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.” The construction “those Americans who believe that they are white” comes from Baldwin; the Chuch cadence of that repeated “The answer” comes from Baldwin, the way that careful qualification becomes emphasis and exhoration is Baldwin. For Baldwin fans, to read Coates’ prose is to experience a delightful recognition; here is someone who loves the same person you do.
Coates takes a risk drawing such a strong comparison with America’s greatest essayist. In trying to capture Baldwin’s power, for example, he sometimes resorts to repetitive capitalized portentous abstractions —”the Dream” or “the Mecca.” The strain is visible and distracting; a reminder that Coates (like just about everyone else) isn’t as sure-footed as his model.
But Coates isn’t using Baldwin to demonstrate his own sure-footedness. Literary influence is often seen in the context of anxiety; Melville throwing his spear into the eye of Shakespeare, or Baldwin wrestling with Richard Wright. Coates, though, rejects that vision of adulthood via beating your parents. He recalls his grandmother telling him that his son would “one day try to ‘test me'”. He responds, “I would regard that day, should it comes, as the total failure of fatherhood because if all I had over you were my hands, then I really had nothing at all.” Fatherhood is about love, not testing—and that’s Coates’ relationship with Baldwin as well.
And not just with Baldwin.
Though The Fire Next Time may be the most obvious blueprint for Coates’ work, Between the World and Me is filled with other fathers and mothers. The schools he attended in Baltimore were “concerned with compliance”, not teaching, Coates says, but despite his dismal experience with public education, he developed a lifelong passion for learning. He listened to Malcolm X’s speeches over and over, “because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their façade of morality…I loved him because he made it plain.” He played Ice Cube’s Death Certificate “almost every day.” He went to Howard where he hoped to find a coherent Black nationalism and instead was gifted with “a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.” And from his wife he learned, among other things, how to raise a child without the belt his father used. “Your mother,” he tells Samori, in a quietly heart-breaking passage, “had to teach me how to love you.”
Most reviews, positive and negative, have focused on the heartbreak in Coates’ writing, and there’s good reason for that. Between the World and Me is a painful book. It starts with Samori crying in his room when he learns Michael Brown’s killer won’t be indicted; it closes with Coates talking to the mother of one of his Howard friends, Prince Jones, who was murdered by a policeman who was never held accountable. These aren’t isolated incidents, Coates’ book makes clear. They’re part of a pattern of terrorism and violence stretching back to slavery, through Jim Crow and redlining, and on up through the neglected, violent streets of Coates’ Baltimore childhood. Police brutality isn’t an accident, or a few bad men acting recklessly. Rather, police, Coates says, are “enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy.” In order to keep thinking of themselves as white, Americans who think of themselves as white kill black people. So it has been, and so, Coates suggests, it shall be, if not for always, then at least as far into the future as you can see from here.
Mainstream reviews at the Economist and The New York Times were quick to chastise Coates for his refusal to acknowledge How Much Better Things Have Gotten, and his lack of hope. And Coates certainly doesn’t have much hope that white people will give up pretending to be white, or that they’ll start treating black people as human beings.
Coates doesn’t offer absolution to white people for the crimes they’ve committed, or, more importantly, for the crimes they’re continuing to commit. But that doesn’t mean his is a hopeless book, or even, for all its hurt, a sad one. On the contrary, Between the World and Me is filled with love—for Coates’ son, first of all, but also, in its language and structure, for Baldwin, as a particular mentor, and as an iconic representative of black heritage and struggle.
“…black power births a kind of understanding that illuminates all the galaxies in their truest colors,” Coates writes. He’s not a Christian, and mentions many times throughout the book that (like Baldwin) he does not find the comfort in God that many black people have. But he finds comfort, and strength, in black people themselves. “Struggle for the memory of your ancestors,” he tells his son. “Struggle for wisdom… Struggle for your gradmother and grandfather, for your name.” The cadences are still Baldwin’s, because Baldwin is Coates’, just as Coates is Samori’s. “We have made something down here,” Coates says, and what he, and his son, and his teachers have made is struggle and love.
Between the World and Me isn’t just a letter, It’s a tradition and a community, a set of tools and voices which Coates found, and which he’s passing on. The book is a gift, and you’d have to be in the grip of a particularly bleak delusion to think that it’s given in despair, rather than in joy.